Starring Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey) in a role seemingly catered to the actresses strengths, The Lady in the Van is the latest film from director Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys). Based on a play by Alan Bennett, and adapted for the screen by him also, Lady is the “mostly” true story of a homeless woman who entered his life and stayed for fifteen years.
It’s the 1970’s and Miss Mary Sheppard (Smith) is an eccentric vagrant, living out of her van and terrorising the suburban residents of whatever street she finds herself parked on. Taking the interest of the peevish and borderline reclusive Bennett (Alex Jennings), it’s not long before he strikes an unfamiliar friendship with Sheppard and finds her parked in his driveway. Equally repulsed as he is mystified, Bennett soon finds himself obsessed with the mysterious woman whose secret history begins to reveal itself slowly over time. But with a mysterious policeman (Jim Broadbent) stalking Sheppard, there may be a deadly secret in her past that led her to being the lady in the van.
The shining star here is Smith, whose performance only seems to be honed through years of experience playing this character on stage and radio. Her sharp delivery is put to good use here with Sheppard snapping at every opportunity, who never deems it necessary to say pleases or thank yous, less someone believe they were offering her charity. Jennings (The Queen) captures Bennett’s quirks to a T, providing a strong backbone for the film and has a softness that plays nicely against Smith’s shrill tongue.
The only element that seems not to translate well to the screen is Bennett: a neurotic and self-involved character, split on-screen between the writer and man, both played by Jennings with the rapport of a bickering married couple. The characters shortcomings though, come in the form of a screenwriter caught in playing up his own importance while simultaneously unwilling to scratch beneath the superficial surface of his character. There’s the underlining notion of Bennett’s homosexuality that’s consistently hinted at, yet no time is spent focusing on this nor does anything come of it. The cost is time spent with Sheppard and a trivial third act that, while working on stage, lacks the necessary coming together for a feature film.
For lovers of Smith and her work, The Lady in the Van is necessary viewing, while others will find this a cozy, feel-good outing.